Citing growing public concern and distrust, Duval Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced he is pulling a proposal that would open the school selection process to all students across the district.
"Often leaders talk about engaging the community and they quote-unquote listen to the community but they don't often reflect and change their initial thoughts," he told the small crowd of media, clergymen, and educators in the West Jacksonville Elementary School library.
Vitti proposed the open enrollment measure earlier this month, in hopes that it would entice more families to opt for traditional schools in the district.
Under current policy, parents unhappy with their neighborhood schools have the option of sending their children to magnet, charter and private schools. Vitti had argued that open enrollment would reduce how many students the school system loses each year to charter and private schools.
Of late, the proposal has been met with mounting skepticism and criticism from parents, union and community leaders in the district's poorest areas, who worried the measure would lead to a mass exodus of students and ultimate closure of under-performing schools.
"Over this past week, through three budget meetings that turned into more Q&A about the open-enrollment policy, what became clear to me was that the community was not comfortable with the open enrollment proposal," he said.
Compounding suspicion was the fact that the plan did not include any additional transportation for students who wish to attend a school outside their neighborhood. Critics said that would leave students whose parents can't afford to take them to school at a further disadvantage.
A public hearing and vote on the measure was originally planned for the school board's regular meeting Tuesday.
But Monday, Vitti, joined by several school board members and community leaders, said he made the decision to pull the plan Sunday night after hearing concerns from several parents and community members over the past week-and-a-half.
"What became clear to me was that the community was not comfortable with the open enrollment proposal and I felt that although, the initial intent was not about closing schools, it could not be ignored that the African-American community, in particular, found it hard to believe that it wasn't about closing schools or eventually closing schools," he said.
Wednesday, school board members expressed concerns that Vitti and the board had not followed proper procedure in engaging stakeholders in its school improvement efforts. The issue was raised at the workshop after Vitti presented another proposal to transform four district elementary schools into kindergarten through sixth-grade next year.
Monday's decision concerning open enrollment would not affect the sixth-grade expansion plans, Vitti said. The school board has requested that the superintendent provide more data about his middle school reform plans for discussion at a later date.
Vitti said Monday that the open enrollment proposal needs long-term engagement from the community.
"By pulling this item, we can come together with more unity to fix these schools over the long-haul," he said.
In the meantime, Vitti's decision to put the plans on hold indefinitely was welcome news to many in attendance, including members of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Duval and Adjacent Counties.
The group expressed opposition to the measure after learning about it last week, said organization president Darien Bolden.
"Many of our schools and many of our communities, especially the African-American community, would not be privileged or afforded the right opportunity, as many of the other communities, to involve themselves with the open enrollment process due to the mere fact of transportation issues, financial issues, people working day-to-day to make ends meet," he said. "It would not have benefited our community at all."
School Board Member Paula Wright of District 4, who has been critical of the proposal, applauded Vitti Monday for the change of pace.
"We have a superintendent, we have a board and we have the community all walking in step to ensure that every school provides quality education to every student," she said.
School Board Member Constance Hall of District 5 where West Jacksonville Elementary School is located, said she plans to sit down with Vitti to go over other ways to address the area's dwindling student enrollment numbers and underutilized schools.
"Right now, I've already requested a meeting with the superintendent to go school by school by school and have the deep discussion of what's happening in our schools looking at the data and just analyzing a direction that's going to bump us up to where we need to be," she said.
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.
ORIGINAL STORY BELOW:
In a message to constituents, Florida Rep. Mia Jones says Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has withdrawn his request to allow open enrollment across the district starting next school year.Jones announced the news Monday morning, according to The Florida Times-Union.
"While I recognize this was a tough decision for the Superintendent to pull this agenda item which he has championed for weeks, I commend him for listening to the public and doing what is in the best interest of this community,” Jones wrote.
The Duval County School Board was slated to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal at Tuesday’s board meeting. A public meeting with school officials is taking place this morning for an update on the decision to pull the proposal.